The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Poppy and the Poison Garden

Mischievous readers! It took much longer to bring this object to you than this Curator had hoped. Oh, the tales I could tell of plagues and an hourglass through which sand fell three times faster than time as we usually know it. Yes, I could tell those tales, but they might be too frightening even to belong in this Cabinet. I hope you will be appeased by the following instead.

— Curator Trevayne

Behind the gates at the end of the lane, the poison garden grew.

Even if there hadn’t been a sign hung on the iron, the children would have known exactly what was planted there, they would have known they were forbidden to enter, this being the source of their parents’ most frequent and hysterical warnings. “Don’t ever go in, are you listening?”

But there is a very particular kind of person who will take words such as these as a challenge, not a warning.

“You’re just scared,” Poppy’s brother teased.

“You are,” she retorted. The rest of the children laughed. It was easy to taunt each other in this way, since, no matter how hard they’d tried, none of them had managed to find out how to get in. The stone wall was twice as high as a person, topped with spikes sharp as needles, and went on as far as they could see. One long, lazy summer afternoon they had followed it, looking for a crack or a hole or some place where the heavy rocks had come loose. Many hours later, smeared with mud and scratched by brambles, they had ended up where they began, back under the sign on the gates, with its warning that the plants within could kill a full-grown man.

“I want to see,” said one of the other boys.

“You want to see a man die?” Poppy asked, with far more curiosity than horror.

“‘Course not, but I want to see what could do it. The plants in my garden are boring. All basil and whatnot.”

Everyone else, maybe a half-dozen children in total, nodded in agreement. Poppy took her little brother’s hand and began to march him back down the lane to their house in time for dinner. Beside the front steps, bright red poppies bloomed with the last flush of life, planted there by her mother every year on Poppy’s birthday. They were pretty enough, but surely the things growing in the poison garden were much more interesting.

Poppy was quite a fan of interesting.

“Poppy, David, wash your hands, what have you been getting up to?” their mother asked.

“We were up at the garden,” said David, because younger brothers are very stupid and don’t know when to keep their mouths shut.

Their mother dropped a ladle. “You must never go in there!”

“We know,” said Poppy, rolling her eyes. “We couldn’t anyway, it’s all locked up. We were just outside.”

“Well, all right,” said their mother, stirring a pot of soup. “But I wish you’d find something else to do. There’s something not right about that place.”

Poppy had heard all the stories. That men disappeared inside the gates, that the only person with a key was an old woman nobody ever saw, that strange footprints, neither human nor beast, were sometimes seen on the dusty path. Those things couldn’t all be true, and anyway, it was just the kind of place about which such stories were told.

Frankly, she had her doubts that it was dangerous at all. Interesting, yes, but it wasn’t as if anyone was going in there and picking leaves to eat as salad, and didn’t a person usually have to eat the wrong plants to get sick? That sort of thing happened all the time in books, some princess or other foolishly swallowing a cake or pudding someone had given her, without thinking whether it was truly a gift.

Funny, it was always an old woman in those stories, too.

Outside Poppy’s window, the moon was very full and bright. She blinked, still sleepy, unsure what had awoken her. No voices drifted up from downstairs, which meant it must be late enough that her parents had gone to bed, but still too early for the birds to have begun twittering in their trees.

The long path up to the garden glowed almost blue, moonlight against the gray dust of a summer without much rain.

And someone was limping up toward the gates, doubled over so that she looked most like a bundle of blankets propped up by a walking stick.

Poppy’s bare feet made no sound on the floor as she crept out onto the landing and down the stairs, pausing only for a moment to wonder whether she should wake David, who would want to see.

But he would make too much noise, and so she slipped through the front door alone. She dared not call to the woman, which might wake up everyone on the street. Stones cut at her toes and a chill wind bit through her nightshirt, but Poppy didn’t stop. Squinting through the moonlight, she could just see the old woman, almost at the gates.

If she locked them behind her, all Poppy was going to have to show for sneaking from her bed in the middle of the night would be sore feet and a cough from catching cold. Poppy hurried, cursing very quietly whenever she stepped on something sharp.

The gates, when she got there, were open.

“Hello?” Poppy called, one hand on the iron. There was no reply. “Can I come in?”

A warm breeze gusted from inside the garden, scented with something sweetly gentle. Poppy stepped through the gates, into warmth better suited to noon than midnight, lovely after the chilly walk. Neat paths wove between flowerbeds, tall trees spread thick branches overhead. Moss, soft and green, curled over rocks, laying a hush over everything.

“Hello?” Poppy called, one more time, and even to her own ears her voice came out as a whisper. There was no sign of the old woman, nor even of the tapping of her cane over the paths, but it wasn’t completely silent.

Nearby, something skittered, as did a shiver up Poppy’s back. “Some kind of animal,” she told herself, venturing further into the garden. It was light enough to read the little signs on wooden plaques in front of every plant and so she did, tasting the words, too beautiful to be bitter or poisonous. Oleander. Narcissus. Hyacinth. Why, her mother planted those last ones, they couldn’t be so very dangerous, no matter what else the sign said.

“Foxglove,” she read at the next one, looking first at the plant, then the sign, and then…

The bones in the flowerbed beside it, scraps of cloth still clinging to shins and arms. One elbow bent, the hand clutching at where the heart would once have been.

Poppy stumbled back, her own heart racing as if she’d eaten the flowers herself. The skull grinned at her and she ran, not paying attention to the paths or direction until she had to stop, gasping for breath.

The gates were nowhere in sight. The garden walls were too far to make out. And there, there were more bones, slumped against the trunk of a yew tree.

Also known as the Graveyard Tree, read the sign beside a foot, bleached white by moonlight.

She wanted to scream, to yell, but no sound would come out and in any case, she knew it wouldn’t do any good. She would just have to find her own way back, out through the gates and down the path and into her own warm bed, for she was suddenly very tired.

Every step felt as if her aching feet were made of stones big as the ones that made up the walls. On and on she went, until she suddenly stopped.

The air was sickly sweet. All around her, poppies bloomed red as blood. Truly, she hadn’t meant to step on them, but the moment she did, the soreness in her scraped and bruised feet seemed to disappear completely.

“You’re mine,” she said to the flowers, though it didn’t make any sense. “We have the same name.”

The poppies danced in the warm breeze.

Poppy knelt to touch the petals and look at their deep black hearts. Oh, they were so soft against her fingers and her legs and her cheek as she lay down among them, their perfume covering her like a blanket.

Blankets. A bundle of them stood on the path, right where Poppy had just been.

“Goodnight,” said Poppy. The walking stick rapped twice on the ground and the bundle turned away.

And Poppy closed her eyes.

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